A CONVERSATION WITH MARGOT LIVESEY, AUTHOR OF ‘MERCURY’
Margot Livesey Mercury (Harper, 2016)
by Anne Kniggendorf
(author image Tony Rinaldi)
Studying logic at the University of York made a deep impression on Scottish novelist Margot Livesey. “Oneof the developments in logic was the idea of fuzzy logic, when things didn’t have to be either right or wrong,” she explains. In nearly all of her eight novels she explores that fuzziness through morally complex scenarios, often created by her characters’ uncertainty about how to respond to a situation. Her most recent release, Mercury is no exception, insisting that both characters and readers ponder: when is something a mistake and when is it a crime? At what point does an ambition become an obsession? And what’s more important: ideals or people?
Her characters, Viv and Donald, are an average middle class couple living in Massachusetts with their two children. Donald is Scottish, Viv is American. They have a productive, decent life that they’re proud of and generally happy with. However, Viv starts feeling that generally happy might not be enough. Her entire life she’s longed to ride horses in high-level competitions. When a woman boards her dapple-gray Thoroughbred, Mercury, at the stable Viv helps run, Viv is sure he’s the answer to her longings.
A series of seemingly insignificant lies told by both Donald and Viv lead to their ensnarement in one of Livesey’s fuzzy places with no obvious way out.
How would you sum up Mercury?
It’s a drama in which a man finds himself married to a woman who is committing, if you will, a different kind of infidelity. That infidelity leads him to a place where he has to choose, as it were, between his family and his values, his family and his own sense of identity.
What was the seed of this novel? Was it gun control? Beautiful horses? Where did you start?
I had two seeds. In 2009 I wrote a column for the Boston Globe — I was a guest editor; I wrote six columns. One was about taxes, one was about gardening, and in response to each of those I got a dozen or a half a dozen emails. Then this massacre occurred in Binghamton, New York, where 14 people were killed. In reading the account of it, one of the things that struck me was that the perpetrator was an immigrant to the United States. I found myself thinking that someone who’s an immigrant knows how to get a gun … I’ve spent a lot of time here and I don’t know how to get a gun.
I decided my next column would be about how to get a gun in Massachusetts. So I wrote this column about that, and it didn’t actually express my beliefs about gun control explicitly. In response to it I got over 100 emails and I also got a half a dozen phone calls on my home answering machine, all from men and all saying quite negative things. I thought, I’ve really struck a nerve here. Massachusetts is one of the most liberal states and yet people are responding this strongly. That really got my attention.
And sometime after that I was talking to an old friend who had been married for 15-20 years. A few weeks before our conversation he had found a gun in the boot of his car. The gun turned out to belong to his wife. Anyway, it wasn’t anything criminal, she had a license and a permit and everything, but for my friend it was distressing in several ways. In the midst of this conversation he said, “We used to believe the same things and now we don’t.” I was just really struck by that and by what I saw as a different kind of infidelity. They had been on the same side politically, had the same moral values, and now his wife was changing. Gradually, those two ideas: what had happened with my article in the Boston Globe and my friend’s remarks, I began to think about how maybe I could tell a story.
For a long time I’ve been interested in the idea of ambition. When does ambition become this thing we call obsession, which we are usually quite critical of? When we say someone’s obsessed it’s not a compliment. That really interested me in all kinds of ways — particularly with regard to women. I also think it’s interesting how we think differently about these things, about how we value the object of the person’s ambitions. I mean, if you really, really want to play the cello, most people think that that’s an acceptable ambition. But if you want to have the world’s largest collection of garden gnomes, say…[laughs]
…and I hope neither of us does … then people regard that very differently. Having spent time with horses in my childhood I was aware of people in the horse world, even at the amateur level, who felt very, very strongly about horses and were hugely ambitious or obsessed or whatever.
Do you feel like you found that instant when one becomes the other?
I don’t. But I do think that it’s a really, really interesting question.
In The Flight of Gemma Hardy you also named a horse Mercury. Is that significant?
I had completely forgotten that. I spent dozens of hours searching through lists of horse names. How strange that I already had the name all along. Thank you! I had originally called the horse by another name, which the publisher didn’t like; the first name was Argent, which is the French for silver or money. So, having written this whole novel with the music of this particular name in mind, I was then faced with finding a new name for the horse, which was quite challenging.
Throughout your novels you return to horses, birds, and math. What is your relationship with each of these things outside of writing?
I grew up in the countryside and for many years as a child I went to a farm everyday where I had various duties: I fed the hens, collected the eggs, watered the various animals, and I also rode there. So, animals played a large part in my childhood — it was a rather sparsely peopled childhood, but there were lots of horses, and sheep, and ponies, and cows around. And my father, with whom I had a quite distant relationship, was an ardent birdwatcher. One of the few things we did together was watch birds, although I have to say that as a six or seven-year-old child, watching birds was actually quite boring. You had to be still for a long time, and maybe you saw something but it almost immediately flew away. And the third thing was maths? And again, I think that really comes from my father who was a mathematics teacher. Besides birdwatching, one of the things we shared was that when I had problems in mathematics I could consult with him about them. I think that’s why it just keeps coming up in some way that I can’t really explain. I can’t say that square roots play much part in my adult life.
Were you thinking of Mercury as a horse or were you thinking of him as the embodiment of Viv’s ambitions and frustrations, etc.?
For me it was really important that he was first and foremost a horse. And a fantastically well-trained horse, a great athlete, and I suppose his origins are murky. You know he comes from Hilary’s fanatical brother and it’s just not clear what happened in Ontario and all of that. No, I did think of Mercury as a horse. But Viv imagines and projects things onto him. She thinks of this moment when he comes over to the gate near the beginning of the section as him choosing her. I mean to suggest that that’s a projection or wishful thinking, I suppose. I was thinking of him as seeming to rather splendidly embody her second birthday, her second chance.
Another notion you return to in your novels is the fuzzy area in the human psyche where unwise decisions are made without malicious intent. Do you intentionally return to that area or do you just find yourself there?
I’m very interested in complicated moral choices. Choices where a person is in a very hard place and at the same time cannot choose. I have a number of novels which come back to that painful idea.
Part of the landscape of that gray area contains identity-swapping and lying for personal gain.
Yes. And I think that one of the things I admire very much in Shakespeare is the way he uses mistaken identity and disguise as a way to embody the way in which it can be so hard to know another person or determine another person’s integrity. He has people make mistakes about who a person is. That doesn’t work so well in a contemporary novel, but we make mistakes about what a person is, if you will.
Donald thinks of himself as a person with integrity who always puts his family first, but he has trouble accepting blame until the end of the novel. For instance, he thinks that if it hadn’t snowed on a particular night they’d all be okay, or if he hadn’t parked where he did, nothing would have gone awry.
I’m very interested in characters who are changing or shifting under pressure. One of the reasons when you’re teaching fiction-writing that one comes back to the idea of conflict and pressure is that in the face of conflict you get to see deeper into people’s nature. I think in the case of Donald, he’s someone who thinks of himself as a good man without really ever having been placed in such a difficult position. He’s faced ethical choices before but never one this complicated.
Initially, one of the most morally crooked characters in the book is a man named Rick. Halfway through, something passes between Rick and Viv when he mentions that he is a gun owner. From then on she becomes the morally crooked, or at least questionable, one and Rick straightens out.
One of the things I thought about was how to embody in a novel someone who begins in a staunchly liberal or left-wing position you know, completely opposed to guns, committed to gun control. What steps would it take to make someone like that change her mind? Rick seems like one of her species — I suppose up until he reveals he has a gun up in Franconia. He’s an accountant. He’s in the world of finance that she knows. He’s a photographer so he has artistic interests. He has a nice sense of humor. He likes photographing horses. He seems like a kindred spirit. Then she discovers this amazing thing: that he has a gun. So, it isn’t that that takes immediate effect, but it’s a distinct step on her pathway, her journey, from thinking that guns change everything and thinking that if a person has a gun it may easily cause them to do things they’ll regret, to her thinking, “I can get a gun and it won’t lead me to do anything bad.”
Some authors use water imagery for rebirth. I wondered if you’re thinking in that same vein of rebirth when you use fainting in a novel. In this book it seems to work that way.
In the case of Viv it is of course tied to her having given blood. The idea of this second birthday — that you can have a second chance in life — she begins to invest more and more in that idea. As a writer you think you’re working organically with each set of characters and I know in the case of Viv I really wanted her to have this very strong sense that she has a special destiny, that she’s been saved for something special, as it were.
Viv feels she’s been led to be this suburban mom she never wanted to be and she’s really working against that. In a way I want to say that’s a feminist struggle, but you give Donald a similar struggle, so I’m not sure if you’re fully going the feminist route or if you’re simply showing that it’s human to battle social/marital constraints and expectations.
The two find themselves in a similar situation though for different reasons. I don’t have children, but accompanying my various nieces and nephews and their parents, I’m struck by how even now, mothers are very often the main parent and how very frequently fathers get praised for certain kinds of things that a mother would not get praised for.
I suppose that Donald has ambitions in medicine, he loves surgery, but when his parents really need help he makes the difficult choice to step back from those ambitions and do something that is much more 9-5. He’s able to sort of cope with that, to accept that limitation, or so it seems. Though he does think about returning to surgery on a number of occasions. Viv, once she’s enjoyed — not resurrecting the stables — but making them more businesslike and successful and function better, things begin to get very stale for her. Her life feels very limited, very predictable.
You’ve used the name Robert for two characters in this book: a man Viv continues having sex with after she meets Donald, and a childhood friend of Donald. Why did you do that?
That was something that, for me, was very organic to the novel. I wanted to suggest that Viv doesn’t immediately fall profoundly in love with Donald. I liked the resonance, the possibilities of her saying his name, and then Donald thinking, of course, optimistically in a quite different way, about his old childhood friend he’s lost touch with. It was for me a kind of foreshadowing of the ambiguities between them and the misunderstandings between them. He accepts at face value, her comment, “Oh he’s just a colleague at work; I don’t know why I’d be dreaming about him.” She’s lying and telling the truth at the same time.
Where were you as you wrote this?
I did write a lot of it in the States, which seems appropriate given that it is set here. I did spend a good deal of time visiting riding stables here. I was very aware that this was a different world from the one I knew in my childhood. A lot of time had passed but it was also a different country with different attitudes. Also doing research into blindness which I found incredibly interesting, but again I felt that it had to be what was happening in the States and how people here were thinking and responding.
This is the first book exclusively set in the U.S. Was there anything aside from the stables that felt different to you while working on it?
I did think about the dialogue. I didn’t want all my American characters to be saying “wow” and “gee,” but I did try to make sure that they weren’t using British expressions. I had several friends read the novel particularly with that in mind, especially in Viv’s section, that she wasn’t saying things that were too British for her. And I also tried to embody a little bit in the conversations he has with his children, you know, that we speak different languages and making comments on that.
Donald seems to keep one foot in Scotland — why is that?
His parents’ decision to move to the States was for a long time the worst thing that had ever happened to him. He goes back to Scotland as soon as he can, to go to university. But when his father develops Parkinson’s, he returns to Boston. His close ties to the world of his childhood, and the fact that he has never freely decided to move to the States, make him tend to idealise Scotland (a tendency his author shares).
Donald is a Scottish expatriate married to an American woman. How did their different countries of origin figure into their characters?
Henry James, James Baldwin, James Salter, Diane Johnson and of course Hemingway have all written memorably about Americans in Europe. I did have in mind to reverse the tradition and to suggest not so much the two nations theme but the way in which Americans tend to believe on the one hand that you can grow up to be president and, on the other, if you fail, you can always start a new life.
I’m curious about Hilary’s (Mercury’s owner) hatred of “Good Men,” men who work to save the appearance of being upright citizens while living in the opposite fashion. Are there any in this book?
I suppose that I thought of Donald as someone who had thought of himself as a good man, but not in her sense. It is a phenomenon that personally interests me, the way that a lot of morality in the States and Britain is still dictated by men, rather than shared between men and women. There just may not exactly be a good man in the book — by the meaning that Hilary hates, these people of “principle.” It’s another way of asking the question that I think lies at the heart of the novel: is it possible to have a set of beliefs that will allow you to know how to act rightly and justly in all circumstances? I think the answer is no, but it’s sort of what Donald longs for. He longs for someone to say: this is the right thing to do and this is what you must do. I think of that as quite a familiar longing that we very rarely find the answer to.